N. W. Overstreet was arguably the most prolific and influential architect practicing in Mississippi through much of the twentieth century. His significance stemmed from the large number, wide distribution, and high quality of his built work as well as from his forceful mentorship of the many young architects who interned in his office. He has been called Mississippi’s First Architect.
Noah Webster “Webb” Overstreet was born on 4 July 1888 in Eastabouchie, a small sawmill town in the Piney Woods of southern Mississippi. He received a degree in engineering from Mississippi State College in 1908 before moving on to complete his studies at the University of Illinois, where he received a degree in architectural engineering. His education gave him a thorough grounding in the technical aspects of the profession and a familiarity with and dedication to the principles of modern architecture as exemplified by Frank Lloyd Wright and his Prairie Style contemporaries in the American Midwest and by Otto Wagner and other European Secessionist architects. Overstreet returned to Mississippi in 1912 to begin his architectural practice with the desire to introduce progressive architectural styles to his home state.
Overstreet practiced for fifty-seven years, retiring from his firm, then known as Overstreet Ware, Ware and Lewis, in 1969. Through much of this time his office was the state’s largest architectural firm. Overstreet’s buildings help tell the story of Mississippi’s history. His early public service buildings, including the Bolivar County Courthouse, often featured modern architectural forms emblematic of the progressive spirit of the times. His post–World War I institutional buildings, such as Jackson’s Central Presbyterian Church, sometimes borrowed from more traditional styles, thereby reflecting the growing conservatism of these years. His Art Deco buildings of the 1920s, including the Standard Life Building in downtown Jackson, announced the renewed optimism of the business community. The streamlined Depression-era public works buildings, such as the boldly composed Columbia High School, resounded with the era’s curious mixture of disillusionment and determination. And his many post–World War II International Style buildings, including the Bolivar County Health Services Building, revealed the restless pragmatism of the moment.
The success of the office resulted in large part from Overstreet’s friendships and associations. He was a longtime member of the Jackson Rotary Club, a deacon in Jackson’s First Baptist Church, and class president of the Mississippi State Alumni Association. Overstreet’s outgoing personality and genuine sympathy for the needs of his clients made him a persuasive salesman on behalf of his firm and a powerful advocate for the cause of modernism. In addition to marketing, Overstreet was concerned primarily with the engineering and construction of his projects. He entrusted much of the firm’s design work to his younger assistants, thus helping to build the skills and confidence of many men who would later become leaders of their own firms. In particular, A. Hays Town worked with Overstreet from 1926 to 1939 and designed many of the firm’s most widely recognized projects, including Jackson’s Bailey Junior High School.
Overstreet was the first Mississippian inducted into the American Institute of Architects’ College of Fellows, which recognized his firm’s excellence in design. His buildings reflected the latest trends of their day and the aspirations of his clients. Most of the nine hundred buildings for which he was responsible continue to serve the needs of Mississippians. Overstreet’s mentorship of several generations of Mississippi architects helped to set the high aspirations and ethical standards that his profession continues to uphold.
- David Sachs, The Work of Overstreet and Town: The Coming of Modern Architecture to Mississippi (1986)